Religious Diversity in Europe: Mediating the Past to the Young
Riho Altnurme, Elena Arigita, and Patrick Pasture

The following is an introduction to Religious Diversity in Europe: Mediating the Past to the Young, edited by Riho Altnurme, Elena Arigita, and Patrick Pasture (Bloomsbury Publishing, March 2022). The full book is available here.

This book is one result of a European research project, Religious Toleration and Peace (RETOPEA), funded by the European Commission (GA 770309). Considering that European public spheres express their anxiety about the growing religious and ethnic diversity in the age of globalization, the central aim of the project was to develop an educational methodology to stimulate mutual comprehension and tolerance with regard to religious and convictional differences among young people. With this in mind we developed a “learning with history” method that appeals to young people’s creativity and openness, but is at the same time based on serious research and stimulates critical thinking. In this perspective, an interdisciplinary team involving scholars from all over Europe (Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Germany, North Macedonia, Poland, Spain, and the UK) analyzed historical peace treaties as well as contemporary representations of religion in various settings, and selected “clippings,” short texts or images, that could start a discussion among young people (age 12-18) about their experiences with religious and interconvictional diversity in an open and safe environment. These clippings and discussions constituted the starting point for inviting young people to make “docutubes,” short, vlog-like videos, and reflect further. It is a method that appeals to the young people’s curiosity and creativity, and allows them to discuss and reflect about religious and other possibly contentious issues in a safe and engaging way while also learning to think critically with history. The methodology can be used for other purposes and in other contexts and places as well. A Badged Open Course has been made for educators to get acquainted with the subjects and the methodology. RETOPEA’s website contains all information, including more than 4000 “clippings” and examples of the “docutubes,” for all who are interested: The project also required to map the contemporary religious landscape of Europe. This book is the result of that exercise. It contains 10 chapters written by the interdisciplinary team of the RETOPEA project and is available in different formats at Bloomsbury.

Introduction and Overview

God Is Back is the title of a best-selling book about an alleged return to religion in the world. But rather than the return of one single God, what we in fact seem to be witnessing is the appearance of many different gods, a plurality of competing worldviews, both religious and secular, and a lot of religious indifference. It raises questions, with deep historical roots, about the place of religion in society and, in particular, in what is labeled as “the public space.” Also religious violence has returned to Europe, mainly from Islamist terrorists. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism led to violence and oppression. At the same time, an awareness that religion can connect people and may contribute to peace and toleration emerged as well. History in this context is often invoked as a motivation or legitimation for divergent actions and policies. 

As we concluded on the basis of a series of exploratory pilot studies in the European countries involved in the project, young people in particular are exposed to widely divergent narratives and experience their effects in their daily lives, in the public as well as in the private sphere, though not necessarily in religious nor educational contexts. Actually, young people sometimes expressed regrets that they could not speak about their religious experiences at their school, and did not know about the worldview of their friends. However, they appear usually open-minded with regard to religious (or convictional) diversity, and are willing to discuss their experiences, reflect on them, and learn from them. At the same time, it is obvious how little historical and religious knowledge they have. They also try to look at the past through the prism of today, often without understanding the historical context. Young people have to design their worldviews from various sources, from their close, personal circle (family, friends, religious community) to schools and multiple media contexts, most of which this book covers.

When we set out to map the religious landscape of Europe, we opted not for yet another survey, but to look at the different ways religions are represented in society today and particularly how they were presented to young people. We adopted a very inclusive approach, looking at institutional religions as well as non-institutionalized spiritualities and non-religious worldviews and their relations with each other and the secular space, though in the historical representations, institutional religions dominate — the different Christian churches as well as Judaism and Islam. 

Religion represented in different “mediating contexts”

Rather than focusing exclusively on the media or visual art, as happens in most studies on the representation of religion, we decided to look at different mediating contexts where religion is represented. Mediating contexts can be print, audio-visual, and online media, in the widest sense including not only books, but also places such as museums where religions are literarily “on display,”, as well as symbolic “places” in civil society, including political parties, religious institutions, spiritual groups, and (inter) faith associations. Obviously, media context also depends on the political and cultural context. Hence most chapters present Pan-European cases involving several European countries. Only the chapter on the new spirituality in Estonia does not adopt a comparative or transnational dimension, while the chapter on the practices and memories of religious pluralism in Al-Andalus in the Iberian peninsula looks at the contemporary representation in contemporary Islamic transnationalism. These studies allow for noticing distinct national representations — for example in the representations of refugees in Spain, Hungary, Germany, and the UK, appealing to different collective memories of religious diversity — but also to recognize an emerging pan-European “canon” in historical textbooks throughout Western Europe. 

Our initial expectation was that this approach would provide a far more diverse picture of the presence of religion in contemporary society than the traditional sociological surveys, which inevitably argue that religion is in decline, even though this conclusion clearly runs contrary to the widely held perception that religion is increasingly visible in society. We do believe however that this increased visibility is also incomplete. In fact, it pays to abandon the framing of secularization that underpins this notion, and to take the complexity of religion seriously, appreciating that it is a multifaceted phenomenon that is present in very different contexts. 

Ever since we first imagined this project, we realized that the representation of religion would vary according to the particular media context. It is a trivial example, but popular newspapers and religious textbooks have different approaches; that is even the case for media belonging to the same “category” as for example tabloids, quality newspapers, religious journals, or lifestyle magazines. The difference between religious and history textbooks is also notable. Museums, in contrast to history textbooks (but in that similar to religious textbooks), often neglect more contentious parts of religious history. Some museums are implicitly or even explicitly designed to encourage mutual understanding and to connect with local communities, as is often the case with Jewish museums, while Islam is mostly represented in “orientalizing” ways disconnected from present life experiences. At the same time both history textbooks and museums, although not all to the same extent and in different ways, share a certain secularist bias, associating religion rather with non-European cultures and, when talking about Europe, with premodern times, as if religion in Europe somehow ceased to be a significant political and societal factor after the French Revolution. Religious minorities — perhaps most obviously in the case of Jews — become ‘ethnicized’ or ‘nationalized’ and are presented,if at all, as national or ethnic minorities.

Remarkably, this secularist bias disappears if one moves away from mediating contexts that bare the mark of academic traditions. Popular media contexts (as expressions of popular culture) illustrate the new visibility of religion in different ways. It can be considered ‘post-secular’ (or post-Christian) in that religious plurality, in all its different guises, is a reality that in itself is hardly viewed as problematic; attitudes appear far more relaxed. This may also relate to the prominent presence of non-institutional religious expressions, in particular (New) Spirituality (formerly called New Age), which appear in various popular media. This book analyzes two media that may be illustrative of popular culture: TV series and YouTube videos. TV series remain extremely popular among people of all ages, even if the ways of watching have changed. While religion is sometimes depicted in conflictual settings, this is not necessarily the case. Although one tends to associate online media with radicalization and fundamentalism, much online content is actually either neutral or promotes religious peace and toleration. YouTube offers a case in point with a diverse range of video clips that promote religious literacy and tolerance and, in so doing, also combat extremism and radicalism. 

Politics is the mediating context where one would expect the greatest emphasis on religious oppositions and an instrumentalization of religion. The results of this comparative study confirm our expectations, but also qualify them to some extent. Particularly interesting in this respect are the very divergent ways in which history is used to legitimize and provide support for very different political stances. The analyses of two contemporary peace-making efforts — the Good Friday Agreement (1998) and the Ohrid Framework Agreement 2001) — reveal the futile attempts made by academic or “elitist” circles to propagate a supposedly inclusive narrative. Nevertheless they show that cultivating collective memory, particularly through physical memorials and museums recalling the conflicts, can contribute at least to a sense of justice. 

Contemporary debates about religion in society often treat Islam as the non-European other. Muslims in particular have been targeted by secularists and populists, who describe them as backward and criticize them for being dissociated from “European values” of democracy, freedom (inter alia of expression), and gender equality and emancipation. This book studies how the historical memory of Al-Andalus, where especially during the Nasrid era of Granada (1230-1492), a relatively peaceful co-existence of different religions was enacted, is used in recent initiatives to reimagine Islam in the current plural context. 

Interfaith and interconvictional organizations offer a fascinating space for encounter and dialogue, often particularly appealing to young people. There is a remarkable level of engagement in dialogue as a means of increasing mutual understanding and acceptance of difference, of setting up a conversation without — and that distinguishes them from ecumenical initiatives — arguing for a particular truth. A more inclusive narrative can also be found among the New Spirituality subculture. Still, one could find continuing tensions between different understandings of religion and institutional and non-institutional spirituality.

The book analyzes different contemporary representations of religion in Europe, but starts with an historical overview of Europe’s difficult relationship with religious diversity. It lays bare the fundamental longing for homogeneity, a deep-rooted fear of diversity as a continuing legacy of Christendom (different from the Muslim traditions of “managing diversity” in Al-Andalus and the Ottoman Empire) that actually survived the French Revolution and still hangs over the continent. But it also discusses the ways peaceful interconvictional coexistence was imagined and realized at different times, reflecting on the way they can be relevant in today’s complex religious landscape where traditional boundaries between religions, spiritualities and the secular became blurred and ambiguous, and new oppositions and culture wars threaten the peace.♦

Riho Altnurme is professor of church history and vice dean for research of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Tartu (Estonia). His recent publications include “Old Religion, New Spirituality: Implications of Secularisation and Individualisation in Estonia (Brill 2021, editor).

Elena Arigita is a permanent lecturer of Arab and Islamic Studies at the Department of Semitic Studies of the University of Granada. Her research interests and publications deal with religious authority and the institutionalization of Islam, and the politics of Islam in Europe.

Patrick Pasture is full professor of European and global history and co-director of the Centre of European Studies at KU Leuven (Belgium). He was Project Leader of the RETOPA project. He is currently writing a book entitled “A History of Christendom: State, Church and Religious Freedom in the West.”

Recommended Citation

Altnurme, Riho, Elena Arigita, and Patrick Pasture. “Religious Diversity in Europe: Mediating the Past to the Young.” Canopy Forum, June 13, 2023.